“WNUF Halloween Special” Premiere at the Creative Alliance

On Oct 18th,  The Creative Alliance will screen a “re-discovered” Halloween TV special from the late 1980’s. WNUF Halloween Special is a television broadcast which captured an investigation of the haunting of the Webber household, as told by WNUF TV reporters. The gentlemen who discovered the VHS recording of the broadcast and brought it to light will be introducing the film for its first public premiere.

What may come as a surprise to those who have seen the broadcast is how authentically 80’s it feels. So authentic, in fact, that reviewers have been stupefied to find that the film was made by former Towson University students early last year. I was fortunate enough to speak with Jimmy George, 33, the producer on this “literally found footage” film over the phone this week, as he and Director Chris LaMartina, 28, prepare for their Creative Alliance premiere.

The conceit of WNUF Halloween Special is that this film could have been recorded from the TV and distributed by anyone who saw the original broadcast. Between news package segments, the film has “commercials” crafted by LaMartina, his assistant editor, and fellow Baltimore filmmakers from both original and archival footage. Furthermore, to reinforce their story, George and LaMartina decided to distribute the film on VHS tape first, labeled simply with “WNUF Halloween Special.” Copies were tossed out of car windows and left in bathrooms of various East Coast VHS conventions by LaMartina. “The whole idea behind the project was that this was a found footage tape you found yourself,” George said.

The film will receive DVD distribution later this month by Alternative Cinema, but George said that LaMartina originally asked a colleague to tape personal copies of the VHS for distribution. They then downgraded the movie by re-recording it from one tape to another, a process which results in a decreased quality called “generational loss,” resulting in a more authentic aesthetic. While VHS was still around, people would pass around tapes and re-record their own versions for personal home viewing, George said. “Those are the original viral videos,” he added.

A young girl stares horrified at the television screen on the official movie poster.

The Creative Alliance premiere poster.

Together, Jimmy George and Chris LaMartina have made six feature films, all of which have distribution and have premiered in Baltimore theaters. While all of their films have focused in the comedic-horror genre, George described this movie as their “most accessible film.” “I think my grandmother would like it if she were still alive, and there is no other movie I’ve made where I can say that,” said George, laughing.

“We make horror movies because there is an audience for low-budget horror,” George said. Together, George and LaMartina will write a script only after having come up with a title, logline, and tagline, which are considered the more marketable aspects of a film. This insures that a movie will have an audience built-in from day one. “The only stories worth telling have a viable concept,” George added.

After the Baltimore premiere and DVD distribution, the film is set to play the festival circuit. George said that WNUF has been submitted to 13 festival, two of which have already scheduled the film to be played. He added that one of the more exciting responses the film received came from the head of the Massachusetts-based, “Killer Film Fest.” In response to a screening of the film, one judge replied that, “This film is so authentic that I had to Google it.”

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Frederick’s 72 Fest 2013

This weekend is Frederick’s annual 72 Hour Film Fest, a timed competition in which participants have three days to make a film. Unlike Baltimore’s 48 Hour Festival, in which participants are given a line of dialogue, prop, genre, or location, 72 Fest tends to have much more unique criteria, such as adapting stories or basing films around pictures given to participants. Throughout the summer, the marketing committee behind 72 has been posting video clues online, hinting at what this year’s theme may be. In each video, a children’s toy block with a letter could be seen.

Earlier this week, in preparation for Thursday night’s criteria launch, the festival announced, by spelling out the block letters seen in previous videos, that the theme will focus on “Science.”

The implications for this year’s criteria could be incredibly diverse given this choice. For example, literary critics claim that science fiction originated with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, which also featured elements of horror, tragedy, and fantasy. “Science,” as a theme could lead judges to restrict the genre criteria to one of these choices.

I’ve participated in three previous 72 Fest’s and have always enjoyed the experience. I rarely get the opportunity to work with a group of friends for such an intensive, filmmaking weekend, so each year we collectively set aside time to participate. It really influences my schedule as well, because it requires that I get all of my homework done ahead of time, knowing that NO free time will be allowed once production starts.


Official poster for this year’s festival, based around the “science” theme.

In previous years, my team has been tasked with adapting the fairy tale of Prunella, adapting a post-apocalyptic short film script, and using two pictures given to us as the opening and closing frames of our film. Also, the festival makes participants select additional criteria from a hat, which can be anything from an added prop or action to having to shave 30 seconds off your end runtime. I’ve always been proud of the work we’ve produced and there is no better way to spend time with friends than collaborating on fun projects. We’ve been fortunate to have won best amateur film our first year of participating, as well as placing as finalists in our other years.

Those interested have up until the launch date to join the competition. You can always compete individually, but it is significantly easier if you have a group of friends to help you through the process. Every year, there is always a few people who do stop motion or animation projects on their own, which is an incredibly ambitious undertaking and always fun to see. The diversity of skill levels that the competition attracts is also a marvel, from elementary school kids to industry professionals. The public screening of the finished films takes place on October 11th, with the winners announced on the 12th. If you don’t want to participate, you must at least come out to see some amazing work from Maryland filmmakers!

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It’s That Time of the Year Horror Fans!

October is for horror fans.

Cable channels will soon begin to play their month long horror movie marathons. AMC hosts their Fear Fest marathon, while TCM plays some retro flicks on Wednesday nights. Netflix, Redbox, and the few remaining video rental stores will be advertising horror classics and new releases that audiences should check up on.

If you don’t consider yourself a fan of scary movies, it’s fairly difficult to avoid them this time of year. I know that I don’t particularly enjoy them, but there is something about October that seems to put me in the mood for a good scary movie. However, because I’m not a huge fan of the genre, I have a hard time picking out what I would want to watch this time of year!

That’s why I have always enjoyed Cinemassacre’s Monster Madness, a month long movie review session that is now celebrating its seventh year. Hosted by James Rolfe, Monster Madness delves into all manner of horror films, from the cult monster movies and the b-grade sci-fi’s, to the gory slashers and the psychological thrillers. It acts as a perfect primer for the inexperienced horror watcher, covering the full spectrum of film history.

For example, the earliest film that Rolfe has reviewed is the 1910 version of Frankenstein, which is now over 100 years old. As he notes in his review, the film was so shocking that it was banned in its time. We should be lucky to even be able to see it, considering there is now only one known existing copy in the world!

This year’s Monster Madness covers horror movie sequels, which Rolfe says will cover five classic horror films and their numerous sequels. We won’t know what movies they are until he begins to release his reviews, one per day for the month of October, but it is likely they’ll come from the larger, more modern franchises, such as Amityville Horror, Paranormal Activity, or Saw. Rolfe has already covered the classic franchises, including some of the more other obscure one’s such as the British-based Hammer films, so it will certainly be interesting to tune in and see what he comes up with!

I probably won’t be able to convince you to watch horror movies if you don’t already have a predisposition to them, but I feel that they can be important. For example, this year, I am curious to see Clive Barker’s Hellraiser. I think everyone is familiar with the classic box art for the movie featuring the main villain, Pinhead, but from what I’ve heard from other horror fans, the true villains of the movie are actually the human “protagonists.” The monsters, called Cenobites in the film, are merely catalysts for our human characters to play out their selfish desires to protect themselves, going so far as to betray one another in the hopes of saving themselves.

A smattering of horror movies on display.

The meager horror movie collection amassed by my roommates and myself.

Many great horror movies have this idea as a trope. The main human characters are actually the monsters and they are written into these scenarios by the filmmakers to show what human nature is unfortunately capable of. I can see why so many people avoid the horror genre for this reason, but I feel that this very challenging aspect can sometimes be important to grasp as an audience member. Consider films such as Schindler’s List or Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom. While typically considered dramas, these films depict horrifying implications for what human nature is capable of. Don’t great horror movies beg the same questions?

Horror films, in many respects, shine a mirror back in the direction of the audience, forcing us to ask questions about why we are watching. It’s why I enjoy watching them at home alone, as opposed to in the theaters. When the final blood is spilt and the screen fades to black, I find myself staring – only for the briefest of moments – at myself in the reflection of the television screen.

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Hosting a Film Series

As the co-president of a coed media production fraternity, Lambda Kappa Tau, I find myself constantly planning social events in the back of my mind. As we head into our Fall rush period, I wanted to insure that my fraternity brothers and sisters would have a relaxing and fun opportunity to hang out together before having to meet dozens of new recruits. This thought occurred to me at our semester’s first meeting. In that moment, looking around the room at all of my friends and colleagues, I decided that I was going to host a Fall film series.

I’ve gradually come to decide that my screening series would be focused on movies that either are about making movies, or offer an opportunity to talk about the filmmaking process. For example, I intend to screen American Movie, a documentary about a Wisconsin-based filmmaker attempting to make an independent horror film with his family and friends, later in the semester. The film has so much rich content to talk about for an audience of media producers, including the passion with which Mark Borchardt, the filmmaker, approaches the project and how he gathers his resources. In addition, beyond the horror film that Borchardt intends to make, the documentary itself is an incredibly moving story told in a very objective way.

However, for my first screening, which I held in my off-campus apartment among a group of friends, I screened Drew Bolduc’s The Taint. The Taint was crafted by a Virginia Commonwealth University dropout on a budget of $6,000. Bolduc, the film’s writer and director, also composed, edited, produced, and stars in two roles in the film. His intent in making the film was to tackle the issue of misogyny and violence against women as a trope in horror movies. I heard Bolduc give a panel discussion at a Mondo Baltimore screening where he said that the film was to be intentionally misogynistic so as to “end the discussion.” Between the gender issues present in the film and the micro-budget on which it was produced, there was much that a discussion group could debate.

Prior to the event, I wrote up an introduction to preface the film and a list of discussion questions I wanted to pose to my attendees afterwards. I was surprised by how engaged my audience was both in the film and the post-discussion because they elicited tons of interesting ideas I hadn’t previously thought of. For example, the film runs almost on an adrenaline-fueled pace, jumping from scene to scene and cut to cut. However, there are only two moments where the pace slows down and captures what feels to be the only “honest” moments in the film: a gym teacher remembering a beating given to him by his father and a male scientist exchanging adoring glances with his female assistant.

While I knew these moments were shot differently and felt “off” when compared to the rest of the movie, it wasn’t until one of my fraternity brothers mentioned the “genuineness” of these scenes and their implication in shaping the themes of the rest of the movie that I truly realized how important they were. I thought to myself how cool it was that the group collectively came to this realization because of the opportunity for discussion we had posed by the screening. Everyone loves to talk about film because it is such an engaging  and meaningful art form. I would recommend to any fan of the cinema, if you really want to get the most out of your movie watching experience, try to watch the film with a large group of people. Afterwards, find some time to hang out and chat about the film. You may be surprised to find where the discussion will take you!

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A Visit to Video Americain, Baltimore’s Last Great Video Store

About three week ago, I came back to my apartment to hear my roommates raving about Video Americain, a video rental store they had discovered through Towson University EMF faculty. My roommate Devin, described the roadside attraction as, “a candy store for film nerds.” Their enthusiasm for what seemed to be a mom-and-pop video shop befuddled me at first, until he began to describe the rows of shelves organized, not by genre, but by directors.

My mouth began to water as he talked about the previous Maryland Film Fest entries having their own section, featuring the works of local filmmakers I haven’t been able to find elsewhere. I was convinced this place was heaven on Earth and that I needed to stop by as soon as I saw an opportunity.

Video Americain's storefront on Cold Spring Lane.

Video Americain’s storefront on Cold Spring Lane.

So I was devastated to read that the store, a fixture of Roland Park for almost 25 years, will be closing early next year . I spoke with another friend of mine, a Towson alumnus named Zach Mullen, who made a stop into the store as soon as he heard the news. Speaking with the owner of the store, Zach enquired as to how he could help mobilize Towson’s film department to assist in saving the collection of 35,000 rare and obscure movie titles.

Zach and I have remained in contact, working with the heads of the Electronic Media and Film department and the College of Fine Arts and Communication to see what space the school would have available in the hopes of housing the film library.  Through Mullen’s talks with Video Americain, he discovered that the owners’ would like to sell the entire collection to one purchaser, who would in turn make the collection publicly available.

Stacks of DVD's leading to the VHS collection backroom.

Stacks of DVD’s leading to the VHS collection backroom.

I got off class early Wednesday evening and was adamant about setting foot in the store for the first time. Not only did I want to see the collection I had heard and read about from numerous sources, but I wanted to see what I could do to help save it.

As I pulled up to what I later found out was a renovated gas station, I realized that I had driven past the location once or twice before without thinking much of it. The store is incredibly unassuming.  New and old movie posters line the floor to ceiling wrap-around windows on the east side of the building. The sign outside states, “Video Americain, The World’s Best Movies.” My immediate impressions were that it reminded me of the kind of seedy adult video store you’d see along the coastal highway of any touristy beach town. But I couldn’t have been more wrong about this treasure trove.

Upon entering, you may be confused to find how small the store is. The floor to ceiling shelves, lined to the brim with DVD and VHS cases, close in on you claustrophobically. However, as you begin to navigate the maze like a lab rat searching for its prized cheese, you discover small, boxy room, after small boxy, room, all lined with rare, obscure, and out of print films.

The sections range from foreign films in every world country to cult classics, serials from the 30’s and 40’s to forgotten straight-to-VHS tapes of the 80’s. I walked around for an hour, marveling at the beauty, dedication, and love it put into amassing this collection. Each room I entered surprised me with some new revelation, like discovering the films of Kenji Mizoguchi I hadn’t been able to find anywhere else. And not just one of his films, but a filmography of at least 10 of his greatest works.

My happiest moment came when I passed the “new documentary releases” and saw that both Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell and Amy Berg’s West of Memphis smiled down on me from the high racks. Both films had been released in the last month without me even knowing and I thought to myself how badly I wanted to see them. So rarely do I want to purchase such films; they almost never appear on Netflix and if they do appear at the Charles theater in Baltimore, it’s for a limited engagement of a week or so. To think that I could rent either of these difficult to find films for $4.50.

Charlie Hickie, left, and Amanda Dorscy, right, man the counter for the Thursday night shift.

Charlie Herrick, left, and Amanda Dorscy, right, man the counter for the Wednesday night shift.

I was convinced that within 10 minutes of being there, this was a collection that needed to be saved. For 25 years it has been accessible to Baltimore’s viewing audience and to think that if, worst comes to worst, the library would be sold off one by one to private collectors, I would be disheartened. In speaking with Charlie Herrick and Amanda Dorscy, the employees working that evening, they noted that a few different groups have stepped up to help.

Beyond the die-hard film buffs who come in on the regular, a group called the Baltimore Film Collective is working to find space to house and make publicly available the entire collection. Their main concern is doing so before the clock runs out on Americain’s lease and they are forced to begin selling off the collection film by film. For the sake of Baltimore’s incredibly active, arts loving community, I hope they are successful.

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